Wisconsin's fish fry and fish boil have gained widespread recognition as regional specialties, but there are other, more unusual fish foodways that remain known largely to very local populations. Whitefish livers, which may seem an unlikely delicacy to many people, are greatly enjoyed by families who live near lakes Superior and Michigan, where the big, thick-fleshed fish thrive.
On the Bayfield Peninsula, fish markets occasionally offer whitefish livers for sale, and they show up as appetizers at restaurants like Maggie's and Gruenke's in Bayfield and Fish Lips, a tavern in tiny Cornucopia at the very top of the state. The morsels are rich but mild, and if very fresh, they are not at all fishy. When cooked properly - that is, barely - they are almost creamy in texture and uncommonly delicious. One need do nothing more than sauté them, place on buttered toast, and set to. The royal treatment includes such accents as bacon, onions, mushrooms or sweet peppers.
Smoked fish is also a Wisconsin tradition, one that dates to native peoples who preserved their catch by slow-cooking it over a smoldering flame; that the process also yielded sweet-smoked, woodsy flavor was a bonus. Today the delicacy is available in several varieties, including whitefish and lake trout from the Great Lakes and mild, pink-fleshed rainbow trout raised by inland fish farmers.
Fans of smoked fish in Wisconsin typically eat it plain with crackers or in a sandwich with buttered rye bread and sweet onions, and sometimes they mix it with cream cheese and spices in a spread or dip. Smoked fish can also turn a pedestrian dish into a luxury - add it to a simple potato hash, for example, then top the mixture with poached eggs and buttery hollandaise. It's now fit for a special occasion like graduation or Father's Day.
Smoked Trout Hash
- 1 pound new potatoes, cooked and chilled
- 1-1/2 cups boned, flaked smoked trout (or substitute whitefish)
- 1/2 cup chopped green onions
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- 1/2 cup cooked wild rice (optional)
- 1 tablespoon minced jalapeño
- salt and pepper
- beaten egg white
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 8 eggs
- 1 cup Easy Hollandaise, below
Grate potatoes on largest holes of grater. Combine potatoes, trout, green onion, parsley, wild rice, jalapeño and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in enough beaten egg white to lightly bind mixture.
Heat oil in large, heavy pan. Form hash into 8 thick patties and fry until browned on both sides. Meanwhile, poach eggs in simmering water. To serve, top each patty with a poached egg and drizzle with hollandaise. Makes 4 servings. (Adapted from Favorite Recipes from the Old Rittenhouse Inn, Innside Press, 1992.)
- 4 egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 dash hot pepper sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
- 3/4 cup hot melted butter
Blend all ingredients except butter in food processor or blender 1 minute. With machine covered and running, add butter through small hole in lid very slowly in a thin stream until sauce is thickened. Keep warm until ready to use.
In The Flavor of Wisconsin, published in 1981, the late Harva Hachten paired recipes from home kitchens with historical essays about food and eating in the state. The first edition largely featured 19th- and early 20th-century traditions; now, in an expanded second edition by Isthmus columnist Terese Allen, the book has been updated to contemporary times. Published recently by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press and with a foreword by Odessa Piper, the new Flavor chronicles the region's culinary culture from wild rice to smoked fish, lefse to Hmong egg rolls, and cream puffs to sheep's milk cheese. This week's "Local Flavor" column and recipe are excerpted from it.
Terese Allen will be signing copies of The Flavor of Wisconsin on June 9 from 7 to 8 pm at Barnes & Noble West, and on June 27 from noon to 2 pm at Orange Tree Imports.